Short story by Michael Botur
The curtains are drawn. There can’t be people living here. The lawn is unmowed. The letterbox is leaking junk mail. Still, the African kid following you on his bike – no helmet, no shoes – says it’s the right place. Bike-Boy is chirpy and has red cheeks. Bike-Boy loves to help. Trudging through the long grass of Mt Roskill to teach ESOL to refugees: it’s a cushy sentence to receive for pushing over the bookcase in your supervisor’s office in Campus House. Cushy because you were going to be charged for assaulting your supervisor at uni if you didn’t beg for diversion. Your parents wrote really articulate letters to the judge and Mum cried in court and you pleaded it down so teaching ESOL is your punishment but honestly: you feel you should retain the right to kill annoying people. And you could, if you wanted to.
That whole court charade, all that fake contrition? Lesson learned? Pfft.
You knock on the door of a yellow 50s bungalow, one of those old state houses. No one appears for ages. Finally an African woman opens. Ethiopian, she looks. Ethiopian is what you’ve been told to expect, anyway. She has these big white pretty eyes bulging out of her cheekbones, that’s the first thing that strikes you. The black hair, the black lashes, the stark eyes.
‘Heyyy, have I got the right, is this… ?’ You introduce yourself and pull out the sheet of paper Ruth from Probation gave you, with the lads’ names. ‘I’m here cause the court ordered me to teach ESOL to your kids or something?’
‘My nephews. They mother, they father, he is being dead.’
‘Condolences, man… er, anyway, I’m here to see …. How do you pronounce this? Neb-Yacht?’
‘Nebeyat,’ she says quickly, as if the name’s only one syllable, and shifts her body so she rests on the other side of the door frame. ‘He is inside. Come, Keee-vin. I am Shewaynesh. They are aunty.’
Inside the air is brown, dark. Every window has an icon of Ethiopian Jesus held over it with thumb tacks, keeping daylight out. This east African Jesus is bearded, with white robes, walking through lush tropical valleys.
The house gets darker and darker until you find yourself in a simple square lounge, five metres by five, with an ancient, cold fireplace and a crowd of dining chairs and a two seater couch occupied by one boy, or man. Someone very large yet young-looking. There’s another, smaller male on an armchair in the corner. The two guys are watching – seriously? – MTV Africa, playing on a tiny 32 inch TV, streaming from a small computer. The screen shows some kind of Senegal pop music with slutty dancers and playboys in racecars weaving through the crowded markets of Dakar or Lagos or wherever, throwing fistfuls of bullets at everyone like rice.
The larger boy is wearing black sunglasses, camouflage pants and no shirt. The way he sits upright, he looks like some sort of a homebound king, or dictator. He’s patting a knife on his thigh.
‘Sup, guys, I’m Kevin. Guys? GUYS.’
The younger refugee leans around his cousin. ‘What you like, Mr Kevin?’
‘Listen, I got some books here in my bag, see? B-A-G. Bag. This book’s pretty choice. WordFind. You guys do many of those back home, or…?’
The smaller boy offers you a packet of wafers. ‘You like snack?’
You chew a wafer suspiciously. It dries your mouth out so you crack open a Red Bull. The boy’s eyes widen as you drink it.
‘What’s your name anyway, dude?’
‘Red Bull,’ he says.
‘Oh, cool,’ you begin, and search your backpack for a second book of word puzzles before you click. ‘Hang on – no, YOUR name. YOU. Who are YOU, dude?’
‘My name, it Berhanu Ammanuel Fisha Belachew.’
‘And your bro?’
The younger boy is smacking the butt of the can, patting the last sweet droplets into his mouth.
‘Your brother, dude. I can’t start the lesson til I’m 100 percent sure of his name. They gave me this little attendance register I’m supposed to fill out. Yo! Older Bro! Are. You. Neb-yot?’
‘He cousin, not brother,’ young Berhanu says quickly, lowering his can and glaring at the couch-king.
‘Right. Hey listen, we need to crack on with this learning-English shit else my arse is headed to jail.’ You flick a light switch on.
Instantly the older boy, Nebeyat, is on his feet. He leans his forehead into yours. This guy is huuuge. Even though he’s slim, his gravity bends the air. Big shoulders. Good knuckles. A fighter’s body.
‘I no want light on this Oromo, this man,’ he booms, pointing at his cousin. Then he thumbs his chest and says, ‘THIS man, me? This man Amhara.’
‘That’s your name, or… I don’t understand, sorry… ?’
Before the older one flips the light off and returns to his dark couch you’re left with a final impression that actually, maybe he doesn’t look much like the other dude at all. He points to the youngster. ‘Russ-i-a is him,’ he says, ‘And America is I am. Oromo he; Amhara me. Amhara like Mengistu!’ He thrusts a brief fist in the air. Beneath his sunglasses, his cheeks bend in a smile.
‘Are you sure you wanna call him Russia, though? Aren’t Russia and America almost at war?’
‘WAR, IS!’ claps the couch king, then he points a finger right in front of his cousin’s eyeball. He’s chewing something which stinks and makes his lips red. ‘Is war, yes!’
You lay photocopied wordfinds in front of both dudes. Only the smaller boy attempts to complete the work. He’s grateful, engaged, willing to learn.
The older one, Nebeyat, just stares at his music videos with his sunglasses on, sitting in that king-pose, muttering dark threats. He’s not like his little cousin. He’s not like anyone.
You can’t stab people directly in their faces, but you think about it a lot. You don’t start the day angry, it’s just that people irritate you and the only tool you have is a crafty brain. Uber drivers, students in your ANTH309 tutorials, old neighbours peering over the fence as you use your samurai sword on a dummy swinging from a tree in your back yard. Irritating homeless people at the bus stop. Neighbours having noisy parties you aren’t invited to. People on Reddit who disagree with you. It’s hard to contain the rage.
You reluctantly go to this student social club party on New North Road hosted by this Somali chick Awane– no, Ethiopian? Somali? You’ve never been sure where she’s from, she’s just always in the student mag for winning scholarships and internships and protesting. The party is held in a special room within the city council building and it’s full of pretentious alphas from the student social committee and the mayor’s there in the corner, schmoozing, and it’s so hard to keep a clean façade that finally you have to leave before you burst. You find a weak boy in the lobby, invite him to come have a private smoke. You lead him down the steps and away from the music. You step into a dark cleft between buildings. From there, it’s a sprint through a couple of alleyways, then a shortcut through the park before you boost the kitchen window of a house with nobody home. When he’s lifting his body up the fence, you pull him down, wrap your arms like pythons in a knot around his shoulders and collarbone and skull, apply pressure to the chokehold over the course of a minute, put him safely to sleep. You’ve done it twice before. Afterwards there was nothing in the paper about someone dying. Usually they wake up unharmed. Usually.
You return to the party, return to the people in the button-up shirts, the women in golden hijabs and dashikis. You endure the difficult conversation, put on your normal mask. Know that you if you wanted to badly enough you could execute everyone.
Shewaynesh explains more and more as you enter the house each Saturday afternoon for another slow lesson in a hot, sticky curtained room with Ethiopian Jesus watching over. ‘Welcome us Kee-vin,’ she always says, making your name sound exotic and spicy. She shucks corn cobs over the sink. It’s nice to see more and more photos on the fridge each time. Looks like she’s been going to church with Berhanu.
The third time you visit, there’s a picture on the fridge of little Berhanu with large eyes in a uniform that’s far too big for him, standing in some smoky camp of tents. Hard to believe that little enthusiastic teen in the lounge with the bright eyes, the dude sharpening his pencil in excitement over your visit, used to be a child soldier. There’s a dude dressed in camouflage behind him holding a Kalashnikov behind his head and stretching – a dude who looks a lot like Nebeyat. You open the curtains to let a little light onto the photo. Hopefully today you can take down a Jesus tea towel or two, illuminate the boys in the lounge, get their eyes off MTV. Shewaynesh comes up beside you, tapping the old photo and says, ‘Rebel, Berhanu he rebel, he have to be, Mengistu kill his family. His mother, she is my sister and he KEEL her with he machete.’ With that, she yanks the curtains shut so no bullets can find the boy. Nebeyat watches us in the reflection on the TV screen.
That’s the first 1000 words.
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